Just a few decades ago, there was no public relations industry in the Arab world. That has changed. As societies in this region have modernized and their economies have become more complex, issues of branding, marketing and the development of communications strategies have increased in importance. Today, there is a growing local PR industry of competent professionals.
This past week, I attended the first conference of the International Public Relations Association, Gulf Chapter, in Bahrain. It was a wonderful gathering of PR practitioners who assembled to network and share ideas, develop their skills, and discuss problems facing their industry.
I had the honor to deliver a keynote address at the opening of the event. Having been asked to speak on the image of the Gulf in the US and how best to deal with misconceptions that have colored the American public’s understanding of this region, I first outlined the problem and then offered some lessons I hoped might be instructive.
1). Don’t Find Refuge in Excuses or ClichÃ©s
It is true that there is a deep and growing gap born of stereotyping and misinformation. But when assessing this problem, it is important not to fall back on clichÃ©s about a double standard or a conspiracy or control of Washington or the media. The simple truth is, the Arab side is losing the PR battle because Arabs have not been engaged. The game is lopsided because Arabs aren’t in it.
2). When Trying to Sell a Product, You Need to Know the Market
A wise friend of mine, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, once said, “We can’t help America to know us, until we know America first.” That means listening, testing and learning what Americans are thinking and taking the results seriously. The American people can change their attitudes, but you must talk to them, not at them, and you must talk to them, in person, answering the questions that are on their minds.
3). Government-to-Government Ties Are Important and Consultants and Lobbyists Can Be Useful, but Neither is Sufficient to Win
Efforts to reinforce relations with Washington can be easily undone by negative campaigns that erode the ground on which those relations rest (remember the Dubai Ports World episode). And advertising campaigns fail to address what’s most on people’s minds. Americans aren’t asking if Arabs are modern and growing their economies; they want to meet Arabs and know them better.
4). Direct is Best –” People Want to Know You
This point can’t be made enough. In all of our polling and focus groups, we find Americans wanting to know Arabs, in person. Nothing can replace this kind of direct contact. Targeted groups of American influencers need to be invited to see the Arab world for themselves. And, of equal importance, groups of Arabs (especially young professionals and women) need to come to America to speak to audiences across the country. Such visits will also generate local media, which is much more receptive (and, oftentimes, more influential) than national media. This cannot be a one-shot deal, but should be part of a sustained and targeted campaign that focuses on key communities and groups.
5). Empower the Private Sector
Government can’t do this alone. The private sector should be empowered to take on this effort. It’s not only good for business, it’s important for the future of U.S.-Arab business ties. In addition, we should take a lesson from the business community. Business people know how to strategize and develop a marketing plan, make a pitch and close the deal. I’ve always thought that we should do our politics the way we do business, not the other way around. In fact, if we did business the way we did politics, we’d all be poor.
6). You Have Constituents in the U.S. and Must Work with Them
The Arab world has untapped human resources in the United States. There are millions of Arab Americans who feel proud of their culture and heritage. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have worked in the Middle East and feel affection towards the region and its people. And, hundreds of thousands of others benefit from the relationship between this region and their jobs in America. They are constituents for a better understanding.
7). Don’t Attempt to Detach One Country or One Region from the Broader Arab, Muslim Context
They are inextricably linked in the public’s mind. You not only shouldn’t try to separate them, you can’t.
8). Calls for Reform Are in Order, but Are Not an Excuse
Some intellectuals have fallen victim to self-flagellation saying, “We have nothing to sell.” While self-criticism and calls for reform are important, they are not “show-stoppers.” A successful PR campaign must be waged. My country, for example, has a host of social problems (high murder rate, racial discrimination, and a host of other ills), but we still have the confidence to sell. And if flaws are openly acknowledged and honestly treated in such a campaign, it can be even more successful.
9). Know Your Story and be Confident that it is Good
It is a human story and a remarkable story that needs to be told. It’s a story about deep and abiding U.S.-Arab partnership in trade, investment, cultural exchange and mutual defense; about progress and change currently taking place in Arab countries; about real people who share values and hopes for the future with their American friends; about Islam as a religion and a way of life that creates value and inspires hundred of millions to lead lives of virtue; and about the common threads of religion, history and culture that have shaped and continue to shape our common destiny.
It’s a story worth telling and Arabs must be the ones to tell it.